As children head back to school, it is critical that we give them the best environment in which to learn and grow during the next nine months. Whether one considers students’ physical and mental health, educational achievement or other metrics, it is clear that the best learning environment includes time outside, engaging in educational opportunities within our natural environment. That is why Congress must continue to strengthen the No Child Left Inside Act to better support schools in developing and implementing these environmental education and hands-on outdoor learning experiences.
There are countless examples of how an activity as simple as planting a seed can spark a newfound curiosity for nature. It can be challenging for educators to keep students engaged inside the classroom, but this is not a problem outdoors. Kids are eager to get outside and explore and learn about the world around them. Whether in the school community garden or on field trips where students can beach comb and watch meteor showers, simply being outdoors allows young people to learn environmental literacy concepts that will last a lifetime.
As our nation and our world witness the extreme effects of climate change firsthand, it is all the more important for children to develop a connection to the natural world and an understanding of the environmental challenges that will affect them and their communities. Outdoor education programs effectively deliver positive outcomes in environmental knowledge, attitudes, dispositions and skills, and can boost academic achievement and civic engagement. They have also been shown to support young children’s cognitive growth and social-emotional development as well as benefit their physical and mental health.
As we confront the worsening effects of climate change and the ongoing mental health crisis — particularly among our nation’s youth — outdoor education opportunities can give students the knowledge and tools necessary to prioritize their overall well-being, empower them to be the change they wish to see in our society and help them grow into the next generation of leaders who will address these and other issues head-on.
Our challenge as educators and policymakers, however, is ensuring all schools have adequate spaces and resources to allow kids to learn about the outdoors. While some educators have been able to access federal grants for environmental education since a provision of the original No Child Left Inside Act became law in 2015, the newest version of this legislation would grow from that success to offer more schools the opportunity to build out their programs.
Here in Maryland, the strengthened legislation would help teachers implement the state’s existing environmental literacy standards, which support high-quality, multidisciplinary environmental education programs from pre-K to high school. Throughout the country, the legislation would provide grant opportunities for states to implement their own comprehensive environmental literacy plans to integrate environmental education and field experiences into the core academic program in public schools. It would also provide grants to allow states to expand professional development opportunities for teachers who want to lead engaging environmental education lessons and launch new pilot programs to encourage hands-on, outdoor learning experiences.
There’s no doubt that the future of our nation and our planet lies in the hands of today’s students. It is up to us to pass legislation, such as the No Child Left Inside Act, to expand outdoor learning opportunities nationwide and ensure we best equip all to make a difference in their communities, country and world.
John Sarbanes represents Maryland’s 3rd congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives. Nicole Veltre-Luton is a Baltimore-based high school teacher and co-chair of Sierra Club’s Baltimore Inspiring Connections Outdoors program.